Out of the nightmare that was 2020 emerged one beautiful dream: What if we lived in a world without police?
Abolition is not a new concept, but people are talking about it like never before. When demonstrators took to the streets this past summer to protest police violence, our primary demand was not reform but the total abolition of police, prisons, and carceral systems.
Organizers and scholars delivered lectures about abolitionist theory, participated in panels on the history of policing, held workshops on how to create defund campaigns, published zines with titles like “Racial Capitalism and Prison Abolition,” and posted Instagram slideshows with quotes from Angela Davis’s essay “Are Prisons Obsolete?” set against vibey gradient backgrounds. Cop cars were set on fire in LA, attacked with Molotov cocktails in New York, and in Minneapolis, residents reduced the 3rd precinct police station to ash. New York’s capitalists were so afraid of looting that they boarded up SoHo and sent those hired to “protect and serve” to watch over the very important institutions of Gucci, Chanel, and Bloomingdale’s. After more than 50 days of continuous protest, the feds were sent into Portland to intimidate protesters into going home — which didn’t work. We had them on the run, for a time.
As winter chilled action in the streets, several prominent liberals attempted to redefine the demand to defund the police, and to scold abolitionists. “If you believe, as I do, that we should be able to reform the criminal justice system so that it’s not biased and treats everybody fairly,” said former president Barack Obama, “I guess you can use a snappy slogan like ‘Defund the Police,’ but, you know, you lost a big audience the minute you say it.” New York Times reporters claimed that activists’ demands to defund the police were “often not meant literally.”
It was troubling to see some prominent socialists participating in this sort of admonishment. Bernie Sanders has opposed calls for abolition, telling The New Yorker that “There’s no city in the world that does not have police departments.” Sociology professor and Marxist writer Vivek Chibber suggests that leftists not even utter the word “defund,” on the grounds that “the problem with ‘defund the police’ as a slogan [is] you have to immediately explain that’s not what you mean.”
In other words, the dream of a world without capitalism is fine, good, heroic. The dream of a world without policing and prisons is unrealistic, idealistic, out of step with the will of the people. So, whose dreams are we following?
Socialists’ anxiety around abolition is a little surprising, as arguments for abolishing prisons and police are logical, even traditional, from a socialist perspective. Historically, socialists have understood the police to be protectors not of working-class people, but of private property, tasked with regulating the inevitable conflicts that plague unequal societies. Eugene Debs, perhaps Sanders’s closest forerunner, wrote that his own theory of “abolishing the prison” would be “pronounced visionary, impractical and impossible.” But nonetheless, he believed that “the time will come when . . . man will think too well of himself to cage his brother as a brute, place an armed brute over him, feed him as a brute, treat him as a brute, and reduce him to the level of a brute.”
The history of policing in the United States is closely connected to 19th century slave patrols and union busting. Slave patrols, designed to capture escaped slaves, kidnap free Black people, and ensure Black people were never idle, were established in the South over a hundred years before police departments were; after the Civil War, when Southern cities began to establish modern police forces, those forces took on the same role of disciplining Black people for not working or attempting to move freely. In the north, in cities such as New York and Boston, police managed rapidly growing immigrant populations, which often meant beating them into accepting low wages, tenement housing, and poor working conditions. Carceral forces are and have always been the stick that capital uses to keep labor subdued and to punish those who look like they might want to build a guillotine.
Meanwhile, elites have always adored the police. For example, here in New York, donors linked to the real estate industry and financial sector have donated millions to the New York City Police Foundation, which provides additional resources to the department. That money has been used to develop programs like COMPSTAT, a controversial crime mapping program, which resulted in disproportionate targeting of the poor. Or consider the case of Ferguson, Missouri, where prior to the murder of Michael Brown, the city balanced its budget by using the police to extract onerous fines and fees often from poor people of color.
Any strong resistance to such forms of exploitation are met with brutal retaliation from capital’s security forces. Police beat and evicted Occupy Wall Street protesters when they began to shine a light on inequality, and police confronted the Ferguson uprising with tanks. Police beat Dakota Access Pipeline protesters with a vigor that recalled how, decades earlier, police had also beat anti-segregation demonstrators and those protesting the War in Vietnam. Their priorities are clear. Police will violently evict you from your home during a rent strike — but not arrest your landlord for stealing your security deposit. There is no resistance to capitalism that has not been met with batons. The dreams of abolitionists are thus essential to the triumph of socialism — no less realistic, no less fundamental, than creating a unified class of workers.
We can only surmise, therefore, that dreams of abolition have been discredited because they are largely held by discredited people — the Black and Brown people who are the system’s disproportionate targets. If we are serious about escaping our capitalist hellscape, we should feel compelled to investigate what is driving the growth of the abolitionist movement and what can be learned.
THE WORK SPEAKS TO THOSE WHO ARE NOT SPOKEN TO
Who are “the people” that socialists must organize in order to take power? If you read the popular media, you’re probably familiar with the working-class image of hardhat Joe that conservatives and liberals love to evoke. Politicians and mainstream journalists portray him as the heart of America, somehow both authentically blue collar and “middle class.” They express enormous concern about the white working class in particular. One of the recent triumphs of the socialist left has been to force Democrats to follow through on at least a small amount of their rhetorical support for working people. Biden, in his first presidential address to Congress, said “Wall Street didn’t build this country. The middle class built this country. And unions built this country.” Legislation like the PRO Act, which would expand union protections, would be a powerful step forward.
At the same time, we must organize those whose labor has been historically organized not through unions but through force. Before America was built by unions, it was built by slavery and genocide. Scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore has long used the language of “surplus” to describe the labor of people who have been excluded by the economy and are absorbed instead by America’s prisons. There is an ever-growing number of people who cannot find dignified work because they’ve been touched by the carceral system or abandoned by government disinvestment and deindustrialization.
It is not rare in the U.S. for one’s existence to be shaped by contact with the criminal justice system. One in three adults has an arrest or conviction record. About half of all Americans have a family member who has been incarcerated. As of this writing, over two million people are locked up, a disproportionate percentage of whom are Black or brown.
At the heart of today’s abolitionist movement are currently and formerly incarcerated people, their families, and survivors of state and domestic violence. The abolitionist organization Survived and Punished emerged out of campaigns to free Marissa Alexandra, a survivor of domestic abuse who fired a warning shot in the direction of her estranged husband (it hit no one) and was subsequently sentenced to 20 years in prison. Abolitionist groups such as Free Hearts are run by formerly incarcerated women, and political education groups like Dreaming Freedom Practicing Abolition are led by currently incarcerated folks. This model of organizing people around their experiences with the prison system is a valuable example of what leftists can do as more and more people are joining the ranks of the precariously employed, the so-called surplus population that is always vulnerable to being criminalized.
To understand how the state controls working and poor people, we must center not just the white worker, but also the Black worker, who is always seen by state and society as an almost-criminal — always at risk of joining the surplus population, being swept from the respectable world of work to the disreputable world of prison.
As an organizer, I’ve seen many times how abolitionist politics can help people make sense of the world. While passing out a zine produced by my small collective, Abolition Action, on a nice autumn day not long after the election, I met a man sweeping up trash in Brooklyn’s Albee Square. He took the zine and 10 minutes later came back to tell me about his time in prison, how police and courts colluded to bring people back into the system again and again, and how he felt as if no one cared about people like him. He took my email; he thought what we were saying in our zine made a lot of sense, that what I was saying about prisons as a means of controlling working-class people tracked with his experience, and he wanted to know more. He said he’d hardly ever had the opportunity to have a conversation like the one we had.
Socialists should take very seriously the fact that abolition is an entry point for people of color, and particularly Black people, into leftist politics. After the uprisings of 2020, more Black people joined my local Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapter and the national Afrosocialist and Socialists of Color Caucus. Some were wary at first, yet they were also open to making the connection between the racialized violence that people of color experience at the hands of the carceral state and the possibility that socialism might be a solution. I personally joined Blacks 4 Peace, because having been emotionally drained by resistance, I needed my people — kinfolk who share a vision of a better world — to replenish my soul. We were— and remain — in a moment of searching and building.
The Work Builds Community
Capitalism atomizes us; to fight capitalism effectively we need a mass movement of people who feel connected. As longtime abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba often says, “nothing that we do that is worthwhile is done alone.” Some of the left’s most important work involves building communities in which people are deeply invested in each other. The ability to care for each other, and to know into what sorts of political action are actually needed for progress, must be grounded in the intimacy of community. It’s hard to even imagine a world without policing unless we think first about our relationships with each other.
Kaba has said that “to transform this mindset, where cops equal security, means we have to actually transform our relationships to each other enough so that we can see that we can keep each other safe and ourselves safe… you cannot have safety without strong, empathic relationships with others.”
We can see the results of long-term embedded, relational organizing in the work of abolitionist organizations like Southerners on New Ground (SONG) in Atlanta, which helped lead bail reform in Fulton County, Georgia, and which worked on Black Mama’s Bail Out, an initiative to help Black mothers get home to their children. Other groups such as the Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative, a trans- and queer-led organization for community liberation, and Women on the Rise in Atlanta, an abolitionist group led by formerly incarcerated women of color, fought for years to reduce police funding and close the Atlanta City Detention Center. In 2019, the mayor announced the launch of task force that would develop a plan to close the jail. While it’s unlikely that Democrats will ever recognize the extent to which the work of abolitionists and socialists changed public consciousness, grassroots organizing is arguably what created the conditions for the Democrats to flip Georgia and win the Senate.
What I’ve admired about many abolitionist organizers and collectives is the commitment to solidarity work. This often begins by forming a relationship in which the central question is, What does this person or community need and want? And what can we do to help provide that? This long-term, community-embedded organizing creates the foundation on which all other political work must rest. This type of relational organizing means that the particular needs of a given group of people, and the relationships that organizers build with them, must be at the center of the work.
THE WORK IS UTOPIAN
Building a socialist world is also a project of uncertainty. Some of us would prefer this not to be the case — you can find any number of poindexters on Twitter who are very clear about the precise nature of how we’re going to get free, whether that’s by organizing a general strike tomorrow or by forcing a floor vote on Medicare for All. But there is no existing model of the society many socialists want to live in — the revolution has not yet been won. Working toward something we can only imagine can seem appallingly bleak to some, but to others, this is where things get good. If you’re starting from a point of “we must change everything,” as so many abolitionists are, then anything is suddenly possible.
There are those who say that utopian demands such as abolition are not worth pursuing because they appear to be unpopular. Ross Barkan has said, in a critique that is often made of socialism itself, that “a social movement will have a hard time lasting if its poll numbers remain so low and the meaning behind it is endlessly debated.”
But we have plenty of evidence that polls do not reflect what breathes life into movements, and of how they can obscure what will in fact move people to action. The 2020 summer uprising was enormous; at one point there were protests happening in all 50 states. In cities including Minneapolis, Atlanta, Chicago, Portland, and New York, protests with thousands of people took place every day, and this went on for weeks. While there were many seasoned organizers and activists on the ground, there were plenty of new faces as well. Every day it was ACAB and FTP. The vision was a world without policing, and this vision motivated hundreds of thousands to put their bodies on the line. It got the people going.
Leftist demands and projects sometimes fail: Workers in Bessemer did not manage to unionize against Amazon, the first attempts at a $15 minimum wage fell flat, universal healthcare never reached its potential, and Sanders lost both his presidential bids. There is not a single left demand that hasn’t failed before it was realized. Socialism itself was a marginal force in politics until Sanders ran and lost. His first campaign was a moonshot that offered something outside of the unsatisfying status quo, and it woke people up. His second campaign was enough of a threat that the Democrat machine had to Voltron-assemble behind Biden to defeat him. Abolition is a moonshot now, but it might become an inevitable reality tomorrow. Our campaigns to defund, disarm and dismantle police may fall short today, but they do provide us the space to perfect our tactics and build a long-term practice of resistance. A loss is not a loss when it invigorates people to try again.
Anyone who has been involved in any mass action can understand the power of a collectively held utopian vision. In 2020, there was not only fighting in the streets, but also joy and care and the love of those with whom we stood shoulder to shoulder. In New York, the City Hall encampment provided free meals to everybody, including homeless residents of the park. In Portland, white moms put themselves on the front lines in a show of solidarity for Black lives, facing police who used tear gas and chemical irritants against them. In Chicago, the #BreakThePiggyBank demonstration was led by young Black and brown folk who demanded to defund the police and kick cops out of schools; at the height of the march, in exuberant moment of rage and joy, protesters broke pig piñatas. Mass action should be cathartic, a way to come together around a vision for the future.
Assata Shakur said it is our duty to not only to fight, but to win. As socialists, we do want to win. All socialists must be optimists, and it is time to apply optimism to abolition. It is through our work that the dream will become reality. Through us, the impossible will become possible.
Cheryl Rivera is a Brooklyn-based organizer with NYC-DSA and Abolition Action and an editor of Lux.